As Deputy for Thanet and District Reform Synagogue in Kent, Laurence Ray brings considerable expertise about smaller communities.
Not only has Laurence lived most of his life in smaller Jewish populations but as a sociologist at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, Laurence conducted research on Thanet as an example of how a smaller congregation actually works. He says: “I did the research before I was quite so involved in the community itself. We were researching the way Jewish identity was expressed and the way it was maintained in a fairly isolated community and one that covers a large geographical area.”
Thanet and District Reform is spread over an area which was once home to a fairly large Jewish population. “This used to be quite a thriving centre of Jewish culture. Unfortunately, the Margate shul has now closed but in the past as a popular holiday resort there were kosher hotels and boarding houses and kosher butchers. However, the Ramsgate community is still active and growing. We have members from all over Kent.”
He adds that, like many smaller Jewish communities, Thanet has worked hard to cement good relations with its neighbours. “We get on very well with the local Islamic and with other faith groups. Over the past few years, we have jointly organised and participated in Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations and these are generally very well attended.”
Laurence, who grew up in Southampton and who has gravitated towards coastal communities for most of his life, makes the most of the natural beauty of the Kent coast by indulging his passion for walking and for landscape photography. As a Deputy for the past 18 months, he sees the position as an opportunity to represent Thanet and gain more insight into the Jewish community nationally.
In his work as an academic he has also conducted research into racially motivated crime. He explains: “A colleague at Lancaster University and I got a research grant to do work in Manchester on racially motivated offenders and that grew into a bigger project working with government agencies. We studied forms of intervention to try and tackle hate crime, but also reflecting more on the nature of violence from a sociological point of view. Then I started teaching in that area and wrote the book ‘Violence and Society’ which has become a widely used resource on different approaches to violence.”
He is certainly worried about the upsurge in antisemitic attacks. However, he feels the numbers need some explanation. “Sometimes the reporting of incidents goes up because people are more aware of them and they feel more able to report if they feel something will be done as a result. However, community protection is very important and I think we need to try to engage the police more in this. We know there have been some problems in bringing prosecutions and even in identifying perpetrators. We have to keep in mind that the police and criminal justice systems are hugely underfunded and under enormous pressure. It’s not only us who are frustrated by the difficulties police have in pursuing crime.”
He adds that the difficult economic climate also plays a part: “We’ve got to tackle the sources of racism. There’s a lot of evidence that violence in general but hate crime in particular goes up in periods of social and economic crisis and with increasing inequality, where people start to see identifiable groups, ethnic by ethnic and religious minorities, as a threat, as the source of their problems. We’ve got to combat that through community associations and schools. And again, that requires resources.”
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